Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women NPR's list of the greatest albums made by women, from 1964 to the present.
NPR logo The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Bjork performs during the Coachella Music Festival in April 2007 in Indio, Calif. Karl Walter/Getty Images hide caption

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Karl Walter/Getty Images

Bjork performs during the Coachella Music Festival in April 2007 in Indio, Calif.

Karl Walter/Getty Images

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself by the Staple Singers

40. The Staple Singers
Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (Stax, 1972)

Chicago's Staple Singers, comprised of Pops, Cleotha, Mavis, Pervis and Yvonne Staples, had a sound that evolved through various labels and producers. It ranged from their gospel beginnings in the church in the '50s and through the turbulent '60s, where they marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and into the early '70s on the heels of the Civil Rights era. The group's album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, released in 1972, was its second album on Stax Records with producer Al Bell, who brought in The Memphis Horns and the storied Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section grooves. Alongside the Staples' voicesespecially Mavis'it's nothing short of glorious. The enlightening album features some of the group's top hits like "This World," the track that kicks off the album and its subsequent joyous celebration. It then quickly leads into the enduringly relevant, powerful and up-lifting funk/soul classic, "Respect Yourself." The Al Bell-penned "I'll Take You There" topped the Billboard charts then, and to this day, when Mavis Staples performs it live, has people of all ages on their feet with the first six notes. Linda Fahey (Folk Alley)


Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch

39. Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator) (Acony Records, 2001)

One year after O Brother, Where Art Thou? threw American music culture into an unexpected place, one of the soundtrack's core musical performers, Gillian Welch, released this wallop of a record. While Time (The Revelator) was her third release, it was the first that connected culturally beyond the niche roots music world. What's more, Time (The Revelator) helped set the tone for a new century's definitive folk boom. Welch and longtime musical partner David Rawlings made the album alone, in what has become Rawlings's signature simplistic approach to production — its title track was recorded in just one take, and the pair captured "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" live during a rehearsal at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. The result is a raw, emotionally stirring collection of songs that are at once deeply influenced by various southern music traditions, including string band gospel, country-blues and Appalachian old-time, while definitively contemporary and palatable to twenty-first century listeners. It's been almost two decades since it's been released, and hindsight makes it even more clear that Welch and Rawlings's approach to roots songwriting on Time (The Revelator) has proven to be a guiding force in roots and Americana. Kim Ruehl (Folk Alley)


It's a Mighty World by Odetta

38. Odetta
It's a Mighty World (RCA Victor, 1964)

During her fifty-year career as an American folk icon, Odetta Holmes was a singer, guitarist, actress and activist who inspired generations of folk, blues and rock musicians. Exuding intelligence, outrage and hope, the 1964 album It's a Mighty World showcases Odetta as a folk original. Fans of Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and (most notably) Bob Dylan may be shocked to hear guitar and vocal arrangements usually credited to those musicians on this record in their original form. In context of her struggles as an African-American woman in a brutally oppressed time, Odetta believed in free will. The might of her truth and persistence, particularly on this album, is undeniable. On it, Odetta leads the listener through powerful melodic histories of the oppressed, including old spirituals, prison camp and slavery songs, transforming them into anthems of liberation. Odetta said she read in her elementary school books that slaves were "happy and singing," so when she discovered folk music, her intention was to rewrite false and oppressive history. The words of folk music helped to voice her and others' hatred of oppression, and she once said: "It got to a point that doing the music actually healed me." Many of what she called her "interpretations" (Odetta did not often compose) became part of the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement of the '60s, inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to name Odetta the "Queen of American folk music." Yet another mark of Odetta's genius is that most of these recordings still feel relevant, thanks to her unique guitar work and her vast vocal range, which soars through a variety of styles from field calls to operatic to bluesy. Michele Myers (KEXP)


Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

37. Kate Bush
Hounds Of Love (EMI, 1985)

During the press cycle for 1985's Hounds of Love — her first album in three years — Kate Bush was too circumspect to criticize those who mocked her perfectionism. But the subtext of her remarks to ZigZag magazine were clear: "It can seem like what you're doing is mad," she said. "You need to be in control to get away with that stuff." More than any other Bush album, Hounds of Love is her treatise on the power of imagination. Its creative potential is clear from the sound of Bush's fifth record, where she wrangles the 48-track Fairlight CMI synthesizer as an instrument in its own right, feeding it atavistic sounds to forge pop's uncanny future. Across these twelve songs, fantasy is a liberating force as well, promoting understanding between men and women on "Hounds of Love," and protecting childhood innocence on "Mother Stands for Comfort" and "Cloudbusting." But it can also be a dark power. "I can't be left to my imagination," she cries on "And Dream of Sheep," the first song of the Ninth Wave suite, in which Bush's protagonist almost drowns (or succumbs to depression). If Hounds of Love's first half fears relationships' fragile intensity, its second half where love jolts Bush's character back to lifesuggests that anxiety is a part of anything worth fighting for. Hounds of Love is proof of concept. —Laura Snapes (Contributor)


Nightclubbing by Grace Jones

36. Grace Jones
Nightclubbing (Island Records, 1981)

On her fifth album, model, actress and scenester Grace Jones hit a winning and lasting formula. Tethered by the ace rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, keyboardist Wally Badarou, drummer Uziah "Stickey" Thompson and guitarists Mikey Chung and Barry Reynolds — together known as the Compass Point All Stars — Nightclubbing is a new wave, post-disco blend with a visceral thread of reggae throughout. This newly-found sound proved to be the perfect foundation for Jones' vocals, with the reggae bounce serving as a foil to her staccato snarl. She's every bit as imposing, angular and intimidating in her music as she is on her iconic album cover and in her music videos. Every line sounds like a command, and the listener has no choice but to do what they are told. Use her — OK. Pull up to the bumper — no problem. Don't mess around with the demolition man — wouldn't dream of it! And yet, underneath the surface of those cheekbones and shoulder pads is a sly wink and a devil-may-care smile. Looking like a beautiful chain-smoking Amazonian android, Jones serves up cool funk that up until that very moment had always been served piping hot. —Jill Sternheimer (Lincoln Center)


Parallel Lines by Blondie

35. Blondie
Parallel Lines (Chrysalis, 1978)

Emerging from New York's punk and new wave scenes in the mid-70's, Blondie released its third and most popular album, Parallel Lines, in 1978. At first it was met with skepticism by the band's label, as it contained some songs that were only half-finished upon entering the studio. Nonetheless, it went on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide and catapulted the band into international superstardom. Parallel Lines saw Blondie pull from its varied influences, although the album as a whole was dominated by one singular sound: pop. It produced six singles and consisted of as much glamour as gritall led by Debbie Harry, a singer who would quickly become a music and fashion icon in her own right. This groundbreaking album showcases Harry's full range as a vocalist from a punk rock growl to polished pop songstressand her artistic fearlessness continues to inspire women and men to this day. With hit singles like "Heart of Glass" and "One Way Or Another," Parallel Lines is undoubtedly the band's most definitive album and remains one of the most revered pop albums of all time. Amy Miller (KXT)


Private Dancer by Tina Turner

34. Tina Turner
Private Dancer (Capitol, 1984)

When Tina Turner strode back onto the music scene in her sky-high heels with 1984's Private Dancer, she reentered the charts alongside a group of talented twenty-somethings including Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. She made history by becoming the oldest woman, at the time, to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "What's Love Got To Do With It?" She followed that triumph by winning three Grammys for that album. ("What's Love Got To Do With It" also won the Grammy for Song of the Year that year, though the award was given to the songwriters, and not Turner herself.) Private Dancer also introduced a new generation to her, a generation unaware of her early career and tumultuous past with Ike Turner — her ex-husband and former musical partner. (Ike once said in an interview, "Yeah, I hit her, but I didn't hit her more than the average guy beats his wife)." Tina Turner left Ike in the mid-1970s with nothing but a few cents in her pocket, and had to survive for a while on food stamps. This is a lady whose parents left her when she was a little girl, and who worked in the cotton fields of Tennessee. This personal history matters when it comes to appreciating the importance of Private Dancer. Although she didn't write the songs on the album, she makes them autobiographical. When she sings "Help, I Need Somebody," you want to reach out and be that somebody. Or on the song, "I Might Have Been Queen," Turner sings, "For every sun that sets / There is a new one dawning." Private Dancer was Turner's coming out of the dark moment, and proclaiming herself a "soul survivor." —Gemma Watters (NPR Staff)


All Hail the Queen by Queen Latifa

33. Queen Latifah
All Hail The Queen (Tommy Boy, 1989)

It's easy to forget that Queen Latifah was a teenager when she recorded All Hail the Queen. How many nineteen-year-olds are so commanding, so cerebral? How many comfortably reference the likes of poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper? With her debut album, Queen Latifah overthrew a reigning set of expectations about women in rap and established herself as a formidable talent. From the effusive beats of "Come Dance For Me" to the emphatic social messages of "Evil That Men Do," her music demands movement on any number of levels. Latifah, born Dana Owens, marshalled a dynamic assortment of producers to execute her vision, which was reggae-inflected, infused with social consciousness and generously female-forward. The celebratory "Ladies First" features filigree fills, glittering wordplay and an ensemble of voices that includes Ms. Melodie, Shelly Thunder and MC Monie Love, all players in the 1990s female rap renaissance. As it happens, Queen Latifah would move away from music (after becoming the first female rap solo artist to put out a gold album) and into a celebrated career as an actor. But that first album was — and remains — a clarion call. Neda Ulaby (NPR Staff)


Post by Bjork

32. Björk
Post (Elektra, 1995)

From the moment you hear the electronic explosion and driving drum beat of "Army of Me" that opens Björk's 1995 album Post, you can tell that the Icelandic singer is not messing around. The album, the follow up to her much-beloved 1993 Debut, is even more emotive and electronically influenced, and is reflective of a move from her small island homeland to London. Björk co-produced the album with a variety of collaborators, but her singular vision is unmistakable here. This is the album that secured in every fan's mind who Björk was as an artistnot one to repeat herself, and one so far removed from the alternative rock that was popular at the time that she inhabited an entirely separate universe. Björk's playful and dark sides are writ large here; she draws on '50s big band jazz ("It's Oh So Quiet") and a futuristic combo of melodic bleeps, strings and a heavily effected beat ("Hyperballad"). At the time, critics loved the album for its originality and freewheeling embrace of a variety of sounds. And for the most innovative artists making music today today, particularly those who enjoy a carefree sense of melody (like David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors), Björk is still a refreshing role model. Kimberly Junod (World Cafe)


Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville

31. Liz Phair
Exile In Guyville (Capitol/EMI/Matador, 1993)

Liz Phair's 18-song double-LP, Exile in Guyville, is her first and best album. Thick with tomboy swagger, it's a wrecked confessional detailing the insanity of dating and screwing in your twenties. It's also an ingenious, track-by-track response to The Rolling Stones' oppressively masculine Exile On Main Street. In her unsparing songs, the 25-year-old Oberlin graduate broke through Chicago's indie scene with some of the most self-assured and explicit feminist rock to date, with lyrics like, "I want to f*** you like a dog / I'll take you home and make you like it." Phair wasn't afraid of anything, and in many ways, this album is one big middle finger to the dudes of her personal "Guyville." In addition to humor and confidence, she navigates vulnerability and heavy emotion across tracks, especially in less-celebrated songs like "Shatter" and "Strange Loop," which hold up just as well as hits like "F*** and Run." The entirety of this album is timeless: Guyville resonates as much for those maneuvering messy relationships today as it did in the early '90s. —Alyssa Edes (NPR Staff)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Correction July 24, 2017

In an earlier version of this report, we said Ansley Dunbar was a member of Grace Jones' rhythm section on Nightclubbing. In fact, it was drummer Sly Dunbar.